John Shannon

“The good thing about growing up in Pittsburgh is that there’s actually a really rich underground music and jazz history there,” says singer/songwriter John River Shannon.

Coming from another source, those words might not raise eyebrows, but Shannon’s desert-influenced, mystical-leaning folk-pop is more rustic than Rust Belt; more likely to conjure images of campfires and canyons than dingy basements and speakeasys.

Then again, a conversation with Shannon reveals a fascinating and complex individual – one equally at home embarking on solo vision quests in the Southwest desert as he is playing the guitars and writing music for the “Louie” show or playing a residency at the hip singer/songwriter hub of the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City; a true-blue denizen of NYC who’s equally at ease hanging with hipsters or kicking it with coyotes.

While that juxtaposition might be jarring to some, it’s second nature to Shannon – who goes on to describe an adolescence spent steeping in Pittsburgh’s underground music scene. Indie-rock house shows and jazz gigs influenced him as much as an American Indian survival school. Spend a little time digging, and it’s apparent that Shannon’s organic aesthetic isn’t at odds with his status as a city-dweller as much as an extension of it. He sees nature in everything – including Manhattan.

“They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder – well, nature is in the eye of the beholder”, he explains. “One way to see it is that art is nature and New York is a city full of art. Everywhere you go in the city there is art – whether it’s street art or someone’s take on a new restauraunt and bar, or the way people dress and do up their cars or the way tree roots break through the cement. It’s all art to me, and that’s all music to me because that is creation. That’s what nature is, creation.”

That philosophy is readily apparent on standout track “City Lights,” where Shannon responds to the seeming dichotomy of being a nature-loving resident of the concrete jungle. “I can believe, the wind still blows in the city/Way up high, sun travels across the sky/Down below, river runs round the city/Did you know?/ Or did you have another place to go?”

“After a certain point – being the nature-seeking person – you realize it’s just all around you,” he explains. “That song is about connecting to that. The wind is nature and the tree and the grass coming out of the sidewalk is nature. The river is nature. The sun just going across the sky is nature. I don’t see the city as anit-nature,” he laughs.

Organic and esoteric elements weave themselves into all of Shannon’s music, but this time around they’re given a literal boost of energy through the inclusion of electric bass and drums. And although Shannon’s breezy folk-pop conjures visions of clear blue skies and pristine mountain streams, “Time Was a Lie” was recorded in the densely populated metropolises of Manhattan and Paris.

The cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” might be surprising to some, but its inclusion came out of Shannon’s quest to learn from and connect with others. ” “I’ve been playing that song for years with my own guitar tuning just to be closer to a master like him, his kind of phrasing, “ he offers. “I’ve been very committed to my own music vision most of my life, but I’ve taken these last years to explore more intricately into how the greats of the past were seeing and expressing things.”

In Shannon’s universe, connection – with people, with nature, with existence itself – is key, and it gives rise to the album’s title.

“There’s a song “Always” that I really love on the record that’s about the moment when you just connect with someone – in someone’s eyes or in a moment of music – and there’s no time,” he notes. “The record is called “Time Was a Lie” not only because it’s a common lyric throughout but because it is an idea meant to challenge the way people measure life and even listen to music.”

While Shannon proclaims himself more of an abstract thinker when it comes to lyrics, there are a few songs in particular where the mysticism is rooted in a very tangible experience and the lyrics are an ode to a particular person – a grizzled elder friend of a friend who claimed he was sent by the Great Spirit to drive Shannon out into a desert canyon by himself for his last 4-day vision quest.

In a lot of ways, Shannon is like that guide – using his music and experience to help others get to the starting point of their own journey or adventure. “It’s about trying to open up awareness as a person,” he says about his life and his music. “Awareness of yourself beyond time.”


© Michael Weintrob

© Michael Weintrob

© Sonya Kitchell

© Michael Weintrob

© Sonya Kitchell

© Sonya Kitchell

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